Cenotes in Yucatán: Devising our algorithm

Cenotes or water caves were meant to be a highlight of our Yucatán experience. Frankly, just the idea sounded perfect: the chance to cool off after a hot day visiting a Mayan ruin or a Franciscan church. Plus, the photos we had seen online were just stunning. 

I don’t know what to think, said K. as the trip was approaching. I fear that they will be far too crowded, and the water will be murky and not crystal clear as in the photos. Really, a let down. 

Talk about cooling down my enthusiasm. 

Strangely, she was both wrong and right. For the most part, we did enjoy crystal clear, turquoise waters in awe-inspiring natural environments. However, we also had a taste of how the prettiest cenote can become a tourist trap you just can’t wait to leave. The bottom-line is perhaps that cenotes, rather than fixed sights, should be seen as changeable, fluid (sic) experiences, that depend as much on the actual site as on external factors such as who the care-takers are or what you had to do to get there. 

Cenote Sac-Aua. Beautiful….until the cool kids showed up!

Take our cenote debut, for instance. It was Lol-Ha, in the small village of Yaxunah, where we arrived in the afternoon, after about half an hour on quiet roads from the not so quiet Pisté, the closest town to Chichen Itza. Lol-Ha turned out to be a municipal Cenote, where a teenager charged us 100 pesos per person and offered us life-jackets. 

Are they mandatory? We inquired.

Nah, he said sheepishly. Just recommended

We were struck by the beauty of the place and, let’s stay it, by the precarious wooden staircase that led to the jumping off point. There were only two other people: two girls in their twenties that appeared to be German, or perhaps Dutch. Luckily, they soon left and we had it all to ourselves.

We hit the jackpot, our smiles appeared to be saying. 

Just right!

Luckily, it was the first time of quite a few. A day later, we were blessed with two other solo cenote experiences in the Homún area. Here, we ignored the dozens of local cenotes advertised by the tour guides in tricycles, and drove for an additional 15 minutes in an attempt to hit our cenote sweet spot at cenotes Mani Chan and Cleotilde. We did, and that story will be told in another post. 

Swimming in Cenote Mani Chan

After a few experiences, we put together our own, informal, algorithm for picking the cenotes for the day. Aided by Google Maps and the odd blog, it went something like this.

  • Difficult access is a promise of solitude. Dirt roads = no buses.
  • We want ratings to be good, but not too many of them or else there’s a good chance to find backpackers splashing loudly in their attempt to land the ultimate instagrammable somersault
  • Facilities such as restaurants and shops sound good, but probably mean easy access and, therefore, crowds.
  • No crystal clear waters in the pictures?  Forget about the place. They’re not bound to look better in reality. 
  • Cheaper cenotes (as in Homún) invite cenote hopping. In Valladolid, hit over two a day and your budget will be affected. 
  • Make it first thing in the morning is a mantra in blogs and social media, but hey, afternoon could also work. Even before or after a rainstorm
  • See props like kayaks or zip-lines? Leave it to the tour coaches.
  • Caretakers force you to rent a life-jacket? Not interested. 

We are newbies in the cenote exploration world, and so our algorithm needs some fine tuning. For instance, it doesn’t account for whether caretakers will have a personal connection with the place, or even whether they care about keeping the grounds clean and tidy.

Spotless Cenote Mani Chan

Also – we are far from claiming that there is only one way enjoying cenotes. We enjoy nature and soaking in the beauty, which is nice to do quietly and undisturbed. But we understand (or, rather, we respect), that others might enjoy music and dancing and all sorts of props around the water cave. Why not. 

Crowded cenote with all sorts of ammenities outside. Why not.

Whatever – do go to the Yucatán peninsula and spend time in cenotes. There are many in Quintana Roo, very close to tourists hotspots such as Playa del Carmen or Tulum. 

And let us know if you put together your own algorithm!


Morning of bliss at Cenote Cleotilde, Homún



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